What is a brave space?
When a group needs to have tricky (vulnerable, uncomfortable, sensitive, etc) conversations to meet its goal, I usually begin our work together by introducing the notion of a brave space. This is often relevant to groups working on diversity, equity and inclusion-related goals.
A brave space is different from a safe space. A safe space is appropriate when a group needs a container in which members can relax without fear of being challenged. It is really important to have space to down-regulate our nervous systems (to get out of the fight or flight response), especially for people who face or have faced many unavoidable challenges in their daily experience.
The purpose of creating a brave space is to have a transformational conversation: a conversation where a diverse group of people unearths what really matters to them, so that they can unlock energy to make positive changes.
I believe it is counterproductive to try to solve workplace cultural difficulties by getting everyone to sign up to the “right” way of doing things.
Real cultural transformation is an emergent, almost alchemical, process involving the coming together of different perspectives into a new, shared direction.
So one starting point is to learn why and in what ways people disagree with each other.
How might we create a brave space?
We need to create a container that can hold disagreement, in service of a shared goal. In order to disagree constructively, I think a group needs a good enough balance between responsibility to ourselves, to one another, and to the group as a whole. Here are some questions to consider to find out if such a balance is achievable:
1. Responsibility to ourselves
Do we each feel that we have agency in what we say and do, and whether we are present in the discussion?
For example, if I am asked a question and I don’t want to answer it, do I feel safe enough to decline to respond?
2. Responsibility to one another Are we aware that our actions and words affect other people? Do we intend to keep to certain standards of how we ought to treat each other (which you might call civility)?
For example, do we all agree that it is unacceptable to label a person as ‘wrong’ or ‘stupid’ rather than disagreeing with their view?
3. Responsibility to the group Do we appreciate that our actions and words can strengthen or weaken the container within which we are collaborating?
For example, would I raise a concern if I felt a group member was acting against the shared goal of the group?
If the answer to any of these questions is ‘No’, I would suggest that there is a lack of resource in the group to have a brave conversation. By that, I mean that group members collectively are unlikely to have enough emotional or mental bandwidth to disagree constructively at the moment. To move towards a brave conversation, the group needs to find more resource first. This could take many forms, including finding a facilitator who can hold the space with love, or starting off with separate safe spaces.
If you are pretty confident that your group is ready for a brave conversation, you could introduce a brave spaces agreement like the one I’m sharing here. I was inspired to create it by this article by Mira Vogel, Senior Teaching Fellow at King’s College London.
This 2-part agreement (individual and group commitments) aims to address the three areas of responsibility: to ourselves, one another, and the group as a whole. I often ask members of the group to read the 'I' statements aloud, notice how the agreement lands with them, and share any questions, concerns, improvements or additions. The group itself should generate the content of the group commitment. I then ask the group if they are all happy to make this agreement with one another.
I would love to hear your thoughts on brave spaces - post a comment or send me an email.